New Life From Old Photos

Today I was clearing out hundreds of photos from a sports event I shot in Davenport late 2015. The event is long over and I just don’t need the 2000 photos taking up the disk space. Narrowing down the “keepers” is always a tough task but for situations like these there’s no point in not being ruthless about it. I had about 200 that I thought told the story well and submitted them to support the article etc well over a year ago. Delete over 1100 photos? Ok!

But… there they were. Among the photos of athletes and paddle boards was a collection of photos of a great white heron that caught my attention. I even labeled them in red via Lightroom so that I’d come back to them later. Later was today.

As I scrolled through them I thought about what I was seeing. It was a white subject in front of a mostly white background. The large bird against the sea foam. “If only there was one with mostly sea foam!” And there was one that was just right — with a little editing.

I came across this beautiful heron while shooting a sports event in Davenport, CA. I thought about what to do with him for a little over a year before inspiration struck.

A high key photograph is a little unusual for me, but I think this stretch outside of my comfort zone is exactly what I needed today.

This photograph is available for purchase at my sale site by clicking this link. Purchases help keep this blog running. Thank you!

Just Keep Creating

Shark Fin Cove in Black and White

What to do when you feel awful?

I want to create. Granted, I want to create when I’m feeling great too. I’ve been cooped up inside for nearly a week with what has to be the worst cold I’ve had in two years.  (Throw pity party now, or send soup).

It’s important to me to try to present a consistently upbeat image. It’s a lesson I learned from a few talented friends. Towards that goal I went through my photo library looking for inspiration. I came across a set of images from Shark Fin Cove and decided to reimagine them as black and white long exposures.  Ahh that’s better. This had the effect of making me feel productive and remembering a warm evening in one of my favorite spots.

Processing Moon Rising Over Half Dome

The Moon Rises over Half Dome Black and White

I’ve been asked frequently about the details of this photograph. Most comments have remarked that their own photos including the moon become washed out blobs. That is exactly what will happen when shooting a scene like this with a digital camera most of the time. When you use the camera’s automatic exposure it assumes that you are taking a picture of a scene that averages to a neutral gray in brightness. The result is that totally washed out moon.

The moon is overexposed while there is detail in the foreground

The important detail is that my photograph is a composite of two photos taken seconds apart. One exposed for the foreground, the next exposed for the moon. There are lots of instructions for photographing the moon, I kept it at f/8 for 1/500 second.

I spent a little time recreating the color version so I help others in a similar situation. I start with my two photos selected in Adobe Lightroom.

Lightroom Edits

I make some basic edits to each image before going further in Photoshop. I started with the moon arbitrarily.

The Moon

The moon image loads with defaults. It’s not bad, but I can do better. I changed the tone curves to add contrast and bring out details in the moon. I darken the midtowns first, then bring up the brights just a little. This also darkens the darkest parts.

Add contrast using the Tone Curve tool

Add clarity to the moon for edge contrast & even more details. This is overdoing it, but hey this is a demo.

Add just a little clarity. I rarely go past 10.

Half Dome

The defaults aren’t bad but it’s missing something. Brights could be brighter, darks could use detail and edge contrast. The moon is of course completely blown out but that was expected for this one shot.

Half Dome loaded with Lightroom’s defaults

Adding a little clarity (edge contrast) is nice to start. Not much, I rarely go over 10 on the general image. I may use more selectively using the brush tool. I add contrast via the tone curves. I want to bring up the mid tones in the middle then darken around it

Add some contrast via the Tone Curve tool

The shadows are a little dark to me, so I’ll raise those via the basic panel. That brings some details in the trees at the bottom. You could safely argue that I went a little crazy on raising the shadows.

Raising shadows

The new histogram looks more evenly distributed in the darks and midtones. This is the beauty of shooting in RAW vs JPG.

Another slight tweak to the curves. Look at the before and after (left and right below) to see the differences. So far so good!


Edit in Photoshop

Once I get the basics down in Lightroom then I will edit both photos in Photoshop (you can do this in GIMP too). Setup the moon as a layer above the half dome background layer.

Moon and half dome layers

Blending the layers

Now things get complicated. There are lots of ways to do this and every photo will have its own unique approach. There’s really no “right” or “wrong” answer. You either got the result you wanted or you didn’t. There are 3rd party tools to help with this. Raya Pro is a great choice, but I’m showing a manual approach to illustrate the ideas.

Let’s take a good look at the foreground / Half Dome layer. The sky could be described as “mostly blue with a big white blob in it.” The blue field isn’t constant. Aside from the overexposed moon it’s a gradient from a light midtown to a darker midtone. This is important to note because I’m going to paint in the moon using a layer mask on its own layer. The shot of the moon has a very black sky and it’s going to be painted in over a very bright spot.

  • Use the magic wand tool to select the sky in the moon layer.
  • Select the inverse just to get the moon (this ends up being a little easier than using the tool to select the moon). Zoom in on the moon to tighten up the selection.
  • Save the selection (Select -> Save Selection)
  • Make a new black layer mask for the moon layer (alt or option click on the mask icon)
Make a black layer mask on the moon layer
  • Click on the new layer mask.
  • Load the saved section
  • Paint the selection with white to reveal the moon
Paint in the moon on the moon layer mask

Yes this looks weird because of the overexposed moon in the lower layer.

  • Use the magic wand tool select the sky in the background layer
  • Save the selection
  • Use the eyedropper tool to sample a color of the sky near the treeline.
Select a sky color to help blend in the treeline.
  • Fill the sky selection using that color (Edit -> Fill Contents: Foreground Color)

That looks better, but it’s a little weird around the moon isn’t it?

The sky is really more of a gradient from values of blue.

  • Select a new Background Color that is a darker value than the foreground color
  • Make a new gradient starting at the treeline up to just below the moon.
  • That’s better but there’s still a dark outline around the moon.
  • Click on the moon mask
  • Load the saved moon selection
  • Reduce the selection size to remove the dark outline (Select -> Modify -> Contract). 3 pixels or so is fine
  • Paint the selection in with white

OK, that’s better. It serves to demonstrate the general idea but there are things that I would continue to work on. The detail of the moon seems unnatural compared to the rest of the scene. There is also some banding visible in the sky. The problem with the moon can be fixed easily. The banding can be handled a few ways including adding noise to the sky selection, a gaussian blur, or perhaps replacing the gradient with a solid color.

Close enough for the sake of demo

The photo that more people are familiar with is a black and white version that serves as this post’s lead-in image. I spent more time and effort on that and it’s a bit beyond the scope of this discussion. That one can be summarized as “season to taste”.

Posting Your Own Work and Citing The Work Of Others

Photograph by Gary Crabbe

So there I was, four miles into an eight mile hike in Yosemite. The light was perfect, the scene incredible. The weight of the gear was heavy even though I went light. I’m about 7500 feet up, about as close to the granite cliff as I dare go because of the slope. I setup my tripod, brace against the wind, wait a moment, and press the shutter. I had planned this trip weeks ago, knew roughly what would line up where and how to capture it. I chose my gear carefully; from lenses to boots. The sun erupted behind the clouds lighting up Half Dome and the valley below. Meanwhile I could see the snow storm approaching from the south and it was definitely time to go before the only road out of there was closed due to the oncoming storm.

I have a few stories like this now. This one is a little more dramatic than the others but they all involve planning, selecting gear, traveling, knowing what to do and how. It’s a little surprising how often these stories involve being really cold.

This is just the beginning of the photograph. Yeah it’s the exciting part, but still it’s just the beginning. Next comes deciding what to do with the image that was captured. It’s never, and I mean never “straight out of the camera”. This takes more time, more reimagining, and when it’s done it looks the way I wanted it to. Effort, time, money, more time, and risk went into this.

Valley View just before a major storm. Available on my sale site

Let’s not forget training and education. In my case I went to art school (OK, I nearly flunked Photo 101. I’m not making that up.) The “training” part can be physical, photography workshops, or both.
Now that I’ve provided some of the story behind a photograph I want to explain why posting your own work or citing the original photographer in that pretty picture you just shared is so important. I am one of the owners of the Landscape Photography Community on Google Plus.  I also help out with the Black and White Photography Community. The goal of this community and many others like it is to provide a space where original photographs can be posted and viewed by, at last count, just over one million members.  We delight in the original photos of amatures (yes I’m American and I spell it “amatures” much like I spell “aluminum” vs “aluminium”), enthusiasts, and professionals alike.

To the point!

I find a lot of photos that were definitely not created by the person who posted it. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting these. A lot of them I’ve seen before. They are very easy to search for thanks to Google’s reverse image search. When I see that image in more than a few search results  (and they’re almost always from Pinterest) then I know this one has been “borrowed.”

The problem is that when you post them to communities for original photographs  you are essentially saying “I made this.” In the meantime the person who actually did it — did the planning, the travel, brought the gear, spent the money, took the risk — gets no attribution and the viewers have no reason not to believe that the poster wasn’t the photographer. The nice comments come rolling in: “beautiful light!” “Ah Slovenia in the spring!” “What gear did you use for this” or my favorite “nice click”. It’s dishonest.

Yes, do re-share photos!

We have a category set aside where this is allowed and even encouraged if, and only if, the original photographer is named in the initial post. In the Landscape Photography Community this is the “Re-Share & Credit” category. Some examples would be:

  • “The Alps, photographed by Clark Jones”
  • “This gorgeous coastal scene by Barry Blanchard” ‘
  •  “Another fantastic surf shot by Jon Kahn”.

This does not mean “reshared from Julie” because we have no idea if Julie was the original photographer. Julie may have found it on Pinterest.

As a funny side note, the lead in photo for this post isn’t my own, but it illustrates a few points.

  • Attribution:  I cite the original photographer
  • Permission: I asked permission from Gary Crabbe to use the photo for this purpose. Note, even when the photo includes your likeness you probably don’t have rights to that photo. This may vary by region. Always ask.
  • It shows the effort needed to capture that image. Yes, I’m sitting on a steep slope high above Yosemite Valley. We hiked 4 miles to get there. I’m being very careful. I hiked with all my gear that was selected well ahead of time. We paid great attention to the storm approaching. None of this was trivial.

What I’m asking is that you re-share photos appropriately. When somebody re-shares one of my photos I take it as a great compliment. Thank you! Just please don’t do that to a group or community dedicated to original photography. That’s taking credit for it. Definitely don’t modify it by removing watermarks or converting to black and white. That’s theft.

Then there are the fake photos. That one photo with the castle up on a rock above a lagoon in a tropical setting? Yeah, I see that one all the time, although the occurrences of it have dipped in recent weeks. It’s a composite. That castle is in Ireland. I think the lagoon and the high rock is in Thailand.  The lagoon and the castle are both real enough on their own, but the composite is absolutely fake. Please oh please stop posting this. I didn’t even like making a reference to it here.

One of our chief moderators, Pamela Reynoso  had this to add, and I wholeheartedly agree:

Sharing one’s own work= a sharing of ourselves, more personal and communal therefore adding more value to the community, rather than sharing what we come across on the web.